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Remembering Actor Irrfan Khan, Whose Face You'll Likely Never Forget

Chuck Zlotnick (c) 2015 Universal Pictures

I was deeply sad to hear last Wednesday of the death of Indian actor Irrfan Khan from cancer at age 53. If you know his name, you already understand; if you’ve seen his face, you’ll likely never forget it.


Khan was a star in India and though he never had the American roles I wish he’d had, there are plenty of times you might have seen him, most likely in Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire. He had a presence unlike maybe anyone else I can think of — he seemed so supremely comfortable in his own body, he never seemed in a hurry, and he had a voice that instantly communicated intelligence and assurance. His large, soulful eyes and heavy eyelids carried the weight of the world; they could say two dozen things with just a small movement.


His brief appearance in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited showcases all of this but the voice. Khan’s devastating wordless performance as the father of a boy who’s died in an accident is essentially perfect. He exudes grace, while at turns showing emotional evisceration, serenity, melancholy, and gratitude. All in maybe 10 minutes of screen time.


To see Khan’s talents as a leading man, I’ll point you to The Lunchbox, from 2013. He plays an accountant in Mumbai, who, through a simple twist of fate, begins corresponding through letters with a woman he’s never met. It’s the sort of movie that might be a broad romantic comedy in the U.S., but here it’s restrained, slyly funny, and achingly tender. Khan reckons with aging, years of loneliness, the small fire of excitement that comes with the possibility of new love, and even an irritating coworker who’s deserving of compassion. It’s a performance that’s at once fascinatingly subtle and utterly magnetic.


Irrfan Khan occupied a space few others can dream of, and seemed to do it with an impossible ease. The Lunchbox and many of his films are easily found through various streaming subscription and rental services.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.